Six children killed in U.S. military attack on compound

KABUL, Afghanistan -- For the second time in a week, the U.S. military admitted Wednesday that Afghan children were killed in attacks against Taliban and al-Qaida suspects, crushed under a wall at a compound stacked with a fugitive militant's weapons.

Both assaults were in the Pashtun-dominated southeast and risked further alienating the country's largest ethnic group, from which the Taliban emerged and still draws its main support.

A U.S. military spokesman said six children died when a wall fell on them Friday night at a complex in eastern Paktia province. U.S. warplanes and special forces had attacked the compound, setting off secondary explosions, Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty said.

"The next day we discovered the bodies of two adults and six children," Hilferty told a news conference. "We had no indication there were noncombatants" in the compound.

Afghans were outraged by the latest killings, which they said damaged the Americans' image in a nation desperate for security.

"The people are growing very hostile now, because America should know how to avoid these things," said Tareq, a 30-year-old government worker in Kabul, who like many Afghans uses only one name. "They are bombing children every day. It is not (Taliban leader) Mullah Omar or (Osama) bin Laden who is killing them."

The Afghan government again implored the U.S. military to brush up its intelligence and bolster efforts to improve security to allow for badly needed reconstruction.

"The pursuit of terrorists has to continue, but we need to look at how to avoid such tragedies in the future," Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad said. "We have to be extra cautious not to harm civilians."

The United Nations was more blunt: "As well as contributing to a sense of fear and insecurity, these incidents make it easier for those who wish to spoil this process to rally support," said spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva.

The compound allegedly belonged to Mullah Jalani, a suspected associate of renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. A former prime minister, Hekmatyar is now allied with the resurgent Taliban. He issued a video statement Wednesday renewing his call for Afghans to rise up against America and its Afghan allies.

Jalani was not among the nine people arrested at the site, 12 miles east of Gardez, Hilferty said. He did not identify the adults who were killed or say whether they were combatants or civilians.

Hilferty said troops exchanged fire with rebels at the scene but said he had no information about U.S. casualties. He expressed regret over the deaths of civilians in Afghanistan but said it was impossible to eliminate such incidents.

"We try very hard not to kill anyone. We would prefer to capture the terrorists rather than kill them," Hilferty said. "But in this incident, if noncombatants surround themselves with thousands of weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition and howitzers and mortars in a compound known to be used by a terrorist, we are not completely responsible for the consequences."

The U.S. military, which on Dec. 2 launched what it described as its biggest operation against militants since the fall of the Taliban two years ago, says it found hidden storage compartments containing hundreds of 107mm rockets, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank and anti-personnel mines and several howitzers at the compound.

It was unclear if the wall that crushed the children was knocked down by troops searching for weapons or the secondary explosions. Hilferty said it was still too dangerous to search some buildings.

The news comes on the heels of a tragic U.S. military blunder in neighboring Ghazni province on Saturday. Nine children were found dead in a field after an attack by an A-10 ground attack aircraft that was targeting a Taliban suspect.

U.S. officials have apologized for that incident.

They originally claimed that the attack killed a former Taliban district commander named Mullah Wazir suspected of recent attacks on road workers. But U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Tuesday that they were no longer certain.

Efforts by the 11,700-strong U.S.-led coalition have been marred by a string of mishaps.

The worst happened in July 2002, when Afghan officials said 48 civilians at a wedding party were killed and 117 wounded in an airstrike in Uruzgan province.

On April 9, a U.S. warplane mistakenly bombed a home in the eastern town of Shkin, killing 11 civilians. Another airstrike in Nuristan province in eastern Afghanistan on Oct. 31 reportedly killed at least eight civilians in a house.

Some Afghans said they hope America will suffer the same fate as the Soviet Union, whose 1980s occupation ended in defeat in the face of a tireless war by Afghan mujahadeen fighters.

"The Soviet Union has broken into pieces, and one day the same will happen to America," said Gul Khan, a 40-year-old Pashtun from Paktia who recently retired from the army. "Afghans are poor but they have God. You cannot escape his judgment."